‘Go Set A Watchman’ by Harper Lee
Warning – Proceed with caution. A few spoilers ahead
This has to be the most awaited book of the year, probably one of the most discussed too. An author and the one book that she had written. Much has been said, analyzed and admired about Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ Jem was the quintessential elder brother, an annoying, teasing teenager, but always there for his tom boyish imp of a sister , Scout. She was what many an adventurous young girl wanted to be. Mischievous and endearng, she brought a smile on your face every time you thought of her. And Atticus, who hasn’t yearned for a father like him, even if you had a perfect one at home? The epitome of righteousness, a true free spirit who believed even children had the right to know everything. He had an answer to all the questions. And you were confident that he would stand by what was right. Always.
The news spread like wildfire. There was another book. An older Scout, a dead Jim and an Atticus who had fallen off the pedestal. No, never, Atticus cannot be anything but perfect, was my first reaction. And it was the same for many others, the social media told me. I didn’t want to touch the book, even with a barge pole. A friend of mine was braver. He went ahead, bought the book and read it. As if that wasn’t enough, he had the gall to write a review as well. Atticus is fine, he said. Ok, I might make an attempt, I thought. And then I meet another dear friend, who gifted me the book. Some things in life are like Jean Louis Finch. They meet you head on. There is just no escape.
Curiosity and a brief illness, pages started turning as if almost by itself. A twenty six year old Scout is on her way back home to Maycombe for her yearly holiday. Jem is no more, we realize. Atticus is old and arthritic, Calpurnia has retired, Henry has stepped in for Jem in Atticus’ work and life and aunt Alexndria is tending the hearth at Scout’s childhood home. And cranky old Dr. Finch, with whom Scout has grown closer to, over the years is in the neighborhood as well. Some childhood reminiscences, a scandal inducing midnight dip with Henry in the village pond and then Scout realizes all is not as she thought it to be. That there are colours in this world which she had never noticed. Because she was never taught to do so.
There is a killing, of a white man, by a black. The killer is Calpurnia’s grandson. Atticus wants to defend him. For a different reason this time. As Scout realizes the reason, she is rightfully indignant and as is her character, flares up at everyone . She feels totally alienated , as she seems to be the only one who thinks differently. For everyone else, there is white and then black. Nothing in between.
Now, the burning question. Has Atticus turned into a bigot? Were we living in a bubble and about to find out that even Gods have feet of clay? As is the case with everything in life, there is no clear and straight answer. He has his own reasons and he is convinced that is the right path. So do most others , along with him. The white people of the South are scared the ‘niggers’ might overcome them, by sheer numbers, if not anything else. People like Atticus has a seemingly logical reasoning for opposing this. These others do not know what is good for the town and the country. They are not educated enough, they can’t think in a logical manner.
“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run’em? “
Aren’t those thoughts so similar the world over? How the oppressed gather strength over a period of time, protests start in feeble voices and then gain momentum. The rich think the poor will be clueless, left to themselves, and that the society will be in anarchy soon. As for the down trodden, it is a matter of ‘my sweat , my wealth.’ There is no middle path, unfortunately. Revolutions simmer for a while and then lights up with a bang, burning down many a belief and system in its wake. It takes more than a generation before some sort of balance is restored. And each one does what he or she thinks is right.
Coming back to the story, Scout, as is her true nature, decides to take the bull by its horns. It is to her uncle that she turns to, first. And when the expected ally is not found in him, she confronts her father, head on. I would say the soul of the book lies in this conversation between father and daughter. You see the old, beloved Atticus. Never shutting her down, at the same time standing his own ground, convinced that he is doing what is right. To her accusations, all he says is , “Well, I love you.” And then as to his six year old, “That’ll do, Jean Louise.” In spite of all the rants of Atticus lovers, I feel he remains the same soul that he was twenty six years ago. His actions and reactions might have changed , which had to, according to the times. But, the person that he was, remains the same at the core. He lets his daughter be, in spite of what anyone else, including his sister has to say. He doesn’t care about where someone has come from, what is valued is where and what he has made of himself. Henry might be considered ‘trash’ by all when it comes to things that matter, for Atticus he is the dependable young man who has made a mark by himself and whom he now considers his son and heir. And he shows who he is and what he believes in as he says,
“Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right – stand up to me first of all.”
Isn’t that what he was all about and what we really admired in him? The book is not about Atticus, in my opinion. It is Scout all the way. Her coming of age and learning to accept people and things as they are. Her coming down to ground. She echoes many a girl who has hit her head against the wall at some point in her life,
“Why in the name of God didn’t you marry again? Marry some nice dim-witted Southern lady who would have raised me right? Turned me into a simpering mealy-mouthed magnolia type who bats her eyelashes and crosses her hands and lives for nothing but her lil’ole hus-band. At least I would have been blissful.”
I did laugh out at that. Loud.
Verdict – If you have read and loved the mocking bird, definitely a must read. Not too sure whether I’d have enjoyed it as much without the background story in mind. Thinking of it as a standalone book, the story does not seem to have a context. I could be biased, though. I loved Atticus. Still do. And there is more than a little of Scout in me, you see. Hence, 4/5